“Heeling” Autism

Service dogs for children with autism made the news last week when Echo, the service dog for a 5-year-old from Rye, NY was missing from November 6- November 15, and returned by a woman who saw a sign posted by volunteers.

Echo is just one of a growing number of dogs trained through Heeling Autism, a program started in 2008 by Guiding Eyes for the Blind. These service dogs wear harnesses, are typically tethered to their children, and also have leashes which are held by an adult (typically the child’s parent) who the dog is trained to respond to. The dogs provide a critical service: safety.

Heeling autism dogs are trained to keep children from wandering by following their adult handler’s lead instead of the child’s lead, and to heel on command when the child starts to pull away. Many parents have reported that they feel more comfortable bringing their children to crowded places, or allowing their growing children to walk instead of ride in a stroller, without fear that their child will bolt.

As the situation with Avonte Oquindo highlights, wandering is a major issue for over half of all children with autism. Heeling Autism dogs can help reduce the risk of wandering for some of New York’s most vulnerable children.

By: Stephanie A. Millman